While taking in a recent viewing of Ravenous, the 1999 pioneer-era splatterfest most of us were fortunate enough to miss in theaters, I was unexpectedly hit with a profound example of what horror is. Guy Pearce's world-weary soldier has returned to his fort after a harrowing ordeal with Robert Carlyle's cannibalistic mountain man, Colqhoun--who has eaten every single one of Pearce's companions in a bid to become a superbeing.
Who should now show up to take over the fort but Colqhoun dressed as a captain, his command sanctioned by a number of higher ranking officers. Pearce has one chance to prove to his superiors that Colqhoun is a monster. In his last encounter with Colqhoun, Pearce's Capt. Boyd had shot Colqhoun in the shoulder, presumably leaving him with a scar. As Colqhoun unbuttons his shirt, Pearce waits with bated breath. He knows, and we know, that there isn't going to be a scar--and so his helplessness becomes our own.
Helplessness is at the root of horror, and horror, by and large, is an infinitely sympathetic genre. Its tried-and-true conventions (knowing--duh!--that Colqhoun's consumption of human flesh will have resulted in fast-acting healing powers, leaving his wounded shoulder without so much as a blemish) have given fans common ground and no small amount of security.
Many of us can't agree on who should run the country or whether The Sopranos or Deadwood is the most bad-ass television series of all time, but all of us can feel scared, and seeing that co-ed run down an unlit hall with an axe-toting maniac at her heels speaks to a certain vulnerability in all of us. There's a weird sense of safety in being able to predict the scares--and if anyone disagrees with me, may I calmly direct your attention to the fact that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning was actually green-lighted.
We like our scares, thank you very much. We are all quite happy to shell out our 10 bucks to the predictable maw of commercialized bloodshed, because we all know exactly what we're going to get.
Which brings me to politics.
Yes, politics. That same 10 bucks could have paid for gas--a lot more gas, now that prices have conveniently dropped in time for the election--but it was spent instead on a comfy level of gore. Why? Well, because when it comes to being an American these days, watching people get chainsawed to death is far preferable to wading in the mire of what Rolling Stone magazine has just declared "the worst congress ever." Halloween has passed, but the real horrors are just around the corner: voter-machine tampering, threatened terrorist attacks, Joe Lieberman!
Is it any wonder that in our blighted political landscape, the most attractive oases are George Romero remakes (Night of the Living Dead 3D, out Nov. 10!) and yet another version of a (much scarier) Japanese thriller starring Sarah Michelle Gellar? (The Return, Nov. 17.) However, this year, when looking at our coming attractions, the gore they don't splatter tells us more about ourselves than the gore they do.
We've already seen TC: The Beginning, Saw III: The Blessed End and Sarah Michelle paying her rent with Grudge 2 (the scariest feature of which is poor Buffy's utter need of a cheeseburger). In the works, we have a number of sci-fi thrillers: the aptly named Déjà Vu (Denzel Washington plays yet another "agent" character; opens Nov. 22), The Fountain (Hugh Jackman searches for love and the Fountain of Youth, also Nov. 22) and the promising dark fantasy Pan's Labyrinth (Dec. 29).
There is also, of course, the remake of 1974's sorority slasher flick Black Christmas. Gas prices, Foley, Iraq--it's anyone's guess what to self-medicate about next. However . . . Black Christmas?
Luckily, there are glimmerings that we actually care about our societal woes, reluctant as we are to face them. Perhaps with our children lucky enough to return from Iraq minus only a limb, it is simply too hard to stare into the dark blatant blood-and-guts horror reveals to us.
When the final movies of 2006 aren't safely gratuitous blood-and-co-ed fare, they are usually gritty spy wars. Last month's release of The Departed features Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon playing a pair of moles in a deadly identity game. Blood Diamond, also with Leo (Dec. 15), is a politically themed downright thrill-ride à la The Constant Gardener. George Clooney uncovers conspiracies in post-WW II Berlin in The Good German (Dec. 8) and Matt Damon is yet another two-faced type, a secret agent, in the Robert De Niro-directed Good Shepherd (Dec. 22).
I find it interesting that in Bush's America it has taken us this long to come to terms with our national identity crisis. Films like The Good Shepherd or The Good German, with their tantalizingly ambiguous protagonists, could not have arrived at a more poignant time for an America busily reassessing who we are and what side we wish to take in an increasingly polarized political climate.
This holiday season's crop of film heroes show characters in the midst of political, as well as personal, chaos, and their default bogeyman--whether it be Hitler's Berlin or Kennedy's Bay of Pigs--is government. Where our national psyche used to run helplessly down the hall, pursued by monsters (hello, Democrats), we are now menaced by uncertain political terrain, murky motives and an overwhelming crisis regarding who to turn to in our hour of need.
Noted cultural analyst David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show, has written eloquently of the abortion-scare horror movies of the Reagan and pre-Reagan eras--Rosemary's Baby and Alien being among the most influential. Likewise, in an era marked by shifting loyalties and less-than-honest political leaders, we are experiencing our own particular attack of horrors.
On Thanksgiving, when we shell out our $10 to see Matt Damon navigate his way through the Cold War, it will be, in part, because we wish to make ourselves feel better about the last four years. Because no matter which party has taken the House and Senate by then, we will still have a government of uncertain standing, a government whose officials are either guilty of corruption or inaction--a government that must now, somehow, balance its powers and rebuild. Whatever has happened, whoever is in power, we're in for a long haul. And we sure are going to need Matt and Leo. Because we all know the word to describe the sort of Guy Pearce-like helplessness a broken government inspires, don't we?
That's right: scary.